The more people discover how good YA literature is--or, more likely, how lucrative a tiny portion of it is--the more you get really baffling articles like the ones that have appeared lately in the Wall Street Journal and Slate. I blogged here about the WSJ one. The Slate one, though milder in tone, is possibly even worse.
Titled "Writing Young Adult Fiction: It's Better Than Going to the Prom," the article starts off with two nutty claims:
- ..."There's no shame in Y.A. these days. Since 1999, the market has grown by 25 percent, and all the big authors are doing it: Patterson, Grisham, Bushnell."
- Writing Y.A. as an adult is a chance to rewrite being a teenager.
OK. For starters, there has never been any "shame" in writing YA or any other category of children's literature.
Why would anyone be ashamed to create art for young people? Is it not cool enough? Please. Do we think children aren't smart enough or sophisticated enough for thoughtful stuff? What is supposed to make them smart and sophisticated, if not the books they read?
What's more, it's irrelevant that James Patterson, John Grisham and Candace Bushnell have joined the fray. They get lots of attention because of their celebrity-author status. No doubt many kids enjoy the books. But in terms of literary merit, there are many, many lesser-known writers who have produced significantly better books.
Certain writers in the field, I'd pit against anyone writing for adults. That the books are written for teens and younger kids does nothing to diminish the artistic achievement they represent.
What's more, YA books do far more than Silly Claim No. 2: that they give old people a chance to "rewrite" being a teenager. Sure, you can do that, if you--as the authors of the Slate piece--feel bummed that your high school experience wasn't an episode of "The Gilmore Girls." But books do vastly more.
They can ask big questions: about love, about what it means to be alive, about the nature of friendship, about the shocking ease with which we can be stripped of our humanity. Consider Eve Bunting's Terrible Things, a holocaust allegory. It's elegant, spare, and heartbreaking--and it's meant for kids who don't yet know how to read.
I won't even talk about the inanity of the assertion that YA books are written in six months. It's no doubt true for their authors, but that's like defining "breakfast" as one soft-boiled egg and a glass of grapefruit juice because that's what you happen to eat yourself.
Articles like these say a lot about our culture and the value we have for children. The shame in all of this is that we treat the books for the young as some sort of second-class thing. When The New York Times covers the National Book Awards, the lede inevitably says, "The National Book Award went to [insert adult book here]." Only much later in the story will you find out which book for young readers won the honor. Same goes for poetry, nowadays a second-class category because there is no money in it (unless you're Ellen Hopkins).
At any rate, it's true that children are smaller and younger than adults. But they are no less important. They deserve great art. They need it, too. And it says something wonderful about the people who continue to make great books for kids, even when it gets less respect in the often-idiotic adult world. Forget no shame in it. There's a lot of pride in it. Carry on, people. Carry on.
Being in a room during a Lisa Yee presentation is a bit like going to a lighting warehouse. The brightness! The heat! It's a thing to behold. But truly. I've attended a number of breakout sessions with her at L.A. conferences, and I always come away feeling inspired, informed, and newly recharged.
I also adore her books: The Millicent Min universe (with inspired companion titles featuring Emily Ebers, Stanford Wong, most recently Marley Sandesky, about a boy running away from bullies); the pitch-perfect Bobby books, which are illustrated by the unstoppable Dan Santat; and Absolutely Maybe, her first foray into YA. Lisa even has a couple of American Girl titles.
Lisa is seriously funny, but her stories have heart and depth. It's no wonder she was the second recipient of the Sid Fleischman Award (the dearly departed Sid won the inaugural award, which is given to acknowledge the often-overlooked funny books).
Finally, there is no mentioning Lisa without also mentioning Peepy, her fauxshmellow peep.
Lisa will be doing a special Monday workshop on bullies, in which we all get to bring a list of our favorite literary bullies, along with an antagonist we'd like to develop. (Sound like fun? There's still room. Click here for more information. And if you haven't yet registered for the conference, click here to do so.)
When did you go to your first SCBWI conference as a participant? What was it like?
My first conference was about 11 years ago, maybe 12? I was scared to death. Didn't know anyone. Didn't even know if I should be there because I was unpublished. However, once I arrived, I knew I belonged. I learned so much that I thought my head would explode -- but in a good way. It was exactly what I needed to get out of my rut and start taking writing seriously.
You’ve published, what, 10 novels now? Does it get easier? What are some of the things you’ve learned along the way?
Ten?!!! Sometimes I can't even believe it. It seems like it took forever to get that first one published, but yes. Yes, it gets so much easier. And no, no, it doesn't get any easier. Um, maybe I should explain that.
That first novel, MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS, came out in 2003 and took over six years to write. I was working full-time and had two young kids. However, the main thing that impeded the writing was me. I was scared and didn't know what I was doing. That's why the SCBWI conferences helped. Once that book came out, I had been through the process and knew what to expect. So things got easier.
Now I can write a book or two a year. However, each time I start, all the old fears and worries bubble up. Can I do this? Why would anyone want to read it? What if I fail? The only difference is, I shove those thoughts aside earlier and get to the work of writing, because now it's my job.
I’ll be attending your seminar on Bullies. Will there be demos? Should I worry that I’m going to get a swirly?
Not to worry, there will be no swirlies -- well, unless you get a question wrong. In that case, you will get a swirly, then be shoved into a locker.
(Editor's note: In middle school, I shoved myself into lockers to save other kids the trouble. It was a point of pride how easily I could fit inside, and how smoothly I could open the door once the coast was clear.)
Seriously though, we're going to have a great time learning how to create wonderful, evil, heartbreaking bullies. And, hopefully, in the process, we'll learn more about ourselves.
What does Peepy plan to wear to the pajama party?
Let me ask her . . .
Okay, I'm back. Peepy acted all mysterious and refused to give me a straight answer. Which means, she hasn't decided yet. So many designers are vying for her to wear their creations.
(Editor's note: This is no doubt Lisa's way of saying Peepy sleeps in the nude. Which is cool and all. But if you sleep in the nude, don't wear that to the poolside party. It can sometimes get chilly at night and ... well, just wear some pajamas, all right?)
Here's a trailer for her latest book, Warp Speed.
Haven't registered for the conference yet? You can do that right here.